Don Mattingly’s toughest decision down the stretch.

Conventional baseball wisdom holds that pitching takes on greater importance in the playoffs than the regular season, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has lived it.

When he was the New York Yankees’ batting coach from 2004-07, he recalled, “(Robinson) Cano was hitting ninth. It was dangerous. But those clubs didn’t win.”

Mattingly believes the reason was simple.

“We didn’t pitch enough,” he said. “Playoffs are a whole different animal. Short series are always tough, even a seven-game.”

Assuming the Dodgers qualify, who will begin the playoffs in the starting rotation? Mattingly ducked the question for a second straight day Sunday and he can for the moment, with only five healthy starters on the active roster. He won’t be able to if/when Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang are all healthy.

This could be the manager’s biggest decision all season, if not in his brief career.

That’s an easy call because 1, the Dodgers missed the playoffs last season and 2, it’s pretty hard for a manager to screw up the Dodgers’ new “rockstar” lineup (Mattingly’s adjective, not mine).

In Shane Victorino, the Dodgers have a speedy veteran who’s been leading off games for playoff-bound teams since 2007. Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier are an enviable heart-of-the-order quartet. The “spare parts” are Mark Ellis, Luis Cruz and A.J. Ellis, and none of them had an on-base percentage worse than Cruz’s .340 when play began Sunday.

“There’s a lot less pressure, as far as knowing you’ve got guys that you feel like, you’ve got a better chance of winning,” Mattingly said. “We had to be perfect the other way. Everybody had to perform up to their limits — and we still want that, that doesn’t really change — it just takes pressure off everyone in the lineup that you just kind of do your things.

As a point of comparison, this was the Dodgers’ lineup on June 30. Now take a look at the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes’ lineup from Saturday.

“Last night …Mark Ellis was standing next to me,” Mattingly said. “I said, ‘this is a little different than when we were going through that stretch where we got shut out in the Bay Area in Oakland. I think we scored one run in Oakland, no runs in San Francisco. This is definitely a different feel than that.”

That’s about all the reminiscing Mattingly allowed himself this weekend. Back to the point at hand: Who should be in the rotation?

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About J.P. Hoornstra

J.P. Hoornstra covers the Dodgers, Angels and Major League Baseball for the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Torrance Daily Breeze, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Whittier Daily News and Redlands Daily Facts. Before taking the beat in 2012, J.P. covered the NHL for four years. UCLA gave him a degree once upon a time; when he graduated on schedule, he missed getting Arnold Schwarzenegger's autograph on his diploma by five months.